Australia’s prime minister announced plans Thursday to ban pornography and alcohol for Aborigines in northern areas and tighten control over their welfare benefits to fight child sex abuse among them. Some Aboriginal leaders rejected the plan as paternalistic and said the measures were discriminatory and would violate the civil rights of the country’s original inhabitants. But others applauded the initiative and recommended extending the welfare restrictions to Aborigines in other parts of the country.
Prime Minister John Howard was responding to a report last week that found sexual abuse of children to be rampant in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The report said the abuse was fueled by endemic alcohol abuse, unemployment, poverty and other factors causing a breakdown in traditional society. “This is a national emergency,” Howard told Parliament. “We’re dealing with a group of young Australians for whom the concept of childhood innocence has never been present.”
Howard announced the measures for the Northern Territory, an Outback region where the federal government retains powers it doesn’t have over Australia’s six states. He urged state leaders to apply similar tough rules in their jurisdictions. The federal government can change laws in the territory with an act of Parliament, where Howard has a majority that ensures he can implement his policy.
Australia is home to about 400,000 Aborigines. About 60,000 live in the Northern Territory, often in isolated, impoverished communities where jobs are scarce and substance abuse is widespread. The land was returned to them over the past 30 years and accounts for about half the Northern Territory, which is about twice the size of Texas.
The plan angered some Aboriginal leaders, who said it was the kind of government behavior that has disenfranchised Aborigines and created the problems in the first place. They also complained they had not been consulted; the government had not previously indicated it was considering such action.
“I’m absolutely disgusted by this patronizing government control,” said Mitch, a member of a government board helping Aborigines who were taken from their parents under past assimilation laws who uses one name. “And tying drinking with welfare payments is just disgusting.” “If they’re going to do that, they’re going to have to do that with every single person in Australia, not just black people,” she said.
Howard said the sale, possession and transportation of alcohol would be banned for six months on the Aboriginal-owned land, after which the policy would be reviewed. The child abuse report found drinking was a key factor in the collapse of Aboriginal culture, contributing to neglect of children and creating opportunities for pedophiles.
Hardcore pornography also would be banned, and publicly funded computers would be audited to ensure that they had not downloaded such images. The report said pornography was rife in Aboriginal communities and that children often were exposed to it. Under Howard’s plan, new restrictions would be placed on welfare payments for Aborigines living on the land to prevent the money from being spent on alcohol and gambling. Parents would be required to spend at least half their welfare on essentials such as food, and payments also would be linked to a child’s school attendance.
Howard also called on state governments to send police to the Northern Territory to address a shortage on Aboriginal land there and offered to pay their expenses. The child abuse report was commissioned by the Northern Territory government and is widely regarded as credible although it attracted some critics. It was unable to quantify the extent of the sexual abuse problem, since anecdotal evidence suggested much of it went unreported.
Conducted by an indigenous health worker and a government lawyer, it found children had been sexually abused in all 45 remote communities visited. The abusers were both Aborigines and non-Aborigines operating in or near their communities. The report made 97 recommendations, including boosting procedures for reporting and monitoring offenders, and addressing widespread poverty and alcoholism. Australia’s original inhabitants suffer far higher rates of poverty and substance abuse than the rest of the country’s 21 million people, and their life expectancy is 17 years shorter.
For years, white men were banned from marrying Aboriginal woman, and mixed-race children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers to be assimilated into mainstream society. Though many found employment in the cattle and sheep industries, they were paid less than whites, sometimes working just for rations. Unable to achieve economic independence, many have become welfare dependent.